nightmareSuperstar Doctor Who writers are few and far between. Douglas Adams became a superstar only after writing for Doctor Who. Robert Holmes is only a superstar within the world of Doctor Who. Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat are arguably superstar writers but they also got to run the whole show. Series Five featured scripts from Simon Nye and Richard Curtis, one of which seemed to clip the writer’s wings and the other which seemed happiest when it wasn’t really a Doctor Who story at all.

But Neil Gaiman is a true superstar writer and he’s also a very, very good match for the version of Doctor Who which Moffat is going for – complex but with a fairy tale aesthetic. For a while it seemed as if The Doctor’s Wife (five stars, Tom Salinsky) was set to be a glorious one-off, but the creator of Sandman has been lured back by Cybermen and the results are, if not quite the perfection of Bigger on the Inside (as it obviously should have been called) then still pretty good.

As with his previous effort, Gaiman’s first act is to take the TARDIS somewhere completely removed from any kind of established continuity – a bubble in which he can create an entirely self-sustaining story. This time it’s Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, but inevitably when it’s long-past its best and under military occupation. The break with the past isn’t entirely complete however, as the Doctor and whatshername are lumbered with the two ghastly moppets from the previous episode. Child actors are always dodgy and these two are awkward and cloying simultaneously. Luckily they don’t stick around for long (making me wonder if a version of this script exists without them…?)

We also have a bunch of marines running about the place, and while I’m aware they came in for criticism from some quarters, I adored the idea of crap marines, sent to guard this cold rock as a punishment with pisspoor weapons, very little training and hardly any military skill. Putting them up against the Cybermen made me laugh one minute and gasp in horror the next – that’s pretty much ideal Doctor Who. Putting Little Miss Nothing in charge of them gives her something to do and that’s a good thing I suppose.

So, yes, the Cybermen themselves make a quick appearance. When the Borg debuted on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989 (the same year that Doctor Who was taken off the air), many British sci-fi fans commented that they were basically ripped-off Cybermen. Well Gaiman now has taken the opportunity to return the favour – unconsciously, he claims not to have watched much TNG. Actually, there’s another, earlier, probably equally unconscious rip-off – Big Finish already portrayed a Cybermen as a Mechanical Turk in a Paul McGann audio adventure from 2011.

The Borgified Cybermen work wonderfully well, however, storming the compound, upgrading themselves to overcome each new threat. I did feel just slightly that these new metal meanies were starting to become so un-Cyberlike that I wondered if there was any point in re-using them instead of creating new baddies from scratch (see also the Ice Warriors in Cold War). This is especially true when it comes to the hugely emotional Cyberplanner – of whom more in a minute. The one constant in the Cybermen’s history has been their lack of emotion, but here the Cyberplanner rants and raves with the best of the Doctor Who baddies. It’s great, but it isn’t very Cyber. The Cybermites are a brilliant conceit, fantastically well executed however.

The Doctor’s identity crisis is the most outré idea in the whole episode, but thanks to an absolutely astonishing performance from Matt Smith, it’s also the most successful. Fun though the Doctor’s doppelganger in The Rebel Flesh was, this was the real deal, executed occasionally with green screen in a Mara-like Neverwhere, but more often than not just by Smith’s committed performance. And the resolution of the chess game actually makes sense – about to lose the game on the board, the Doctor moves the field of play to the psychological realm, goading the Cyberplanner until he is able to take advantage of a momentary lapse in concentration. It’s brilliant, brilliant stuff.

What I’m less sold on is the Cyber weakness to gold being a software issues (which just makes no sense at all) and the fact that this generation of Cybermen hasn’t eliminated that as part of their constant and unstoppable upgrading.

The ending is a little rushed and throughout there’s some dodgy editing – a persistent flaw in this run of episodes, not sure why.  Fair enough, I didn’t spot Warwick Davis hiding in plain sight, but the conclusion didn’t have as much of a gut punch as I thought it needed, and it’s not at all clear what happened to the TARDIS when the planet blew.

Very, very good stuff then, rather than perfect. Four-and-a-half stars but I’m still waiting for this year’s cast-iron classic.

So... what did I think of The Crimson Horror?
So… what did I think about the Name of the Doctor?